Review: Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay
The following was originally posted to my livejournal on September 7, 2008.
The Trouble With Fantasy
The Lord of the Rings is probably my favourite novel and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is a comic I suspect I'll re-read periodically for the rest of my life, and yet I can honestly say that — as a genre — fantasy almost always leaves me cold and often freezing to death.
So it was with some trepidation, a few months back, that I selected Guy Gavriel Kay's recent novel Ysabel, a prize I won from a short-list of titles offered by BBAW Award-nominated LJer calico-reaction, in a contest she was running (a direct link to which I'm damned if I can locate).
|Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay
The book sat on a shelf for some weeks after it was delivered to me but I finally read it in August. And now, here it is early September, and I am only now getting around to putting my thoughts about down on virtual paper.
Though the book tops 500 pages, the narrative takes place over a period of about a week, eschewing fantasy's typical penchant for epic in favour of intensity and the personal.
The story's protagonist is 15 year-old Ned Mariner, a Canadian kid from (if memory serves) Ottawa, doing time in France while his father Edward, a reknowned photographer,works on his next coffee-table book in Provence.
Ned wanders inside the cathedral his father is shooting, meets an American-exchange student and self-admitted geek named Kate. Shortly thereafter the two of them encounter a mysterious, knife-wielding man who emerges from a hole in the cathedral's floor and the adventure begins. Warned to leave because the pair "have blundered into the corner of a very old story", Ned and Kate flee to a garden where Ned is taken by an ancient carving of a woman which the nameless man claims to have carved.
Typical of fantasy, Ned's family is not a normal one and neither is Ned himself a normal kid. Not only is his mother a doctor, working in war-torn Sudan with Médecins sans frontieres, but her long-estranged sister — Ned's aunt Kim — possesses some sort of psychic powers, apparently a gift of her Celtic blood. Before long, it is clear that Ned too possesses magical abilities and he and Kate find themselves, seemingly by chance, caught up an ancient battle between two immortals battling for the love of an equally-immortal Druid priestess.
Needless to say, there is a lot more to the plot and there are a number of other well-drawn characters in the Mariner entourage. But I cordially dislike writing plot-summaries as a rule and — truth to tell — I needed to consult Wikipedia to write what little I have. A month down the line, only the vaguest outline of the story remain in mind.
In fact, Kay writes very well. He ignores the temptation to "make strange" through the use of archaic language or other hackneyed distancing devices, choosing instead clear prose and short sentences and paragraphs to propel the narrative, giving a modern feel even to those scenes set in the past. And despite the novel's length but very short narrative time-span, Ned's rapid coming-of-age is believable and sometimes moving.
As a teenager, I might well have thought this a wonderful novel. (Indeed I suspect it would be appreciated by "young adults" of either sex, as Kay introduces us to at least as many strong female characters as male.) But reading it mid-way through my 44th year, Ysabel failed to stay with me once I had turned the final page.
Perhaps my coolness toward this book, and to modern fantasy in general, is revealed by the synopsis above. Unlike the fully-realized mythology of Tolkien or the universe-spanning strangeness of Gaiman's Sandman, but very much like stories of alien abduction near Area 51 or novels about urban elves or vampires, and despite the many undeniable qualities of Ysabel, I am unable to take the fantasy elements seriously — Kay's world is recognizably our own and so the concept of a pair of Druid and ancient Roman immortals battling through time seem, well, at once extraordinary and mundane, making for a literary stew whose ingredients don't make for a satisfying meal.
While I was able to suspend disbelief as I read, and even felt for the plight of the novel's characters, once the book was done, the story slipped from my mind like a friend's not-so-interesting dream recounted over drinks at a bar.
If you enjoy urban fantasy, Ysabel is probably a very good one, but I don't think it belongs to a genre to which I will return any time soon.